Jonathan Zimmerman, 45
Director of the history of education program &Professor of Education and History,
Steinhardt School of Education and Professor of history in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences,
New York University.
I'm not a religious person, in the usual sense of the term, but I've come to believe in epiphanies. I had my first one about 15 years ago, when I was doing my doctoral research. As a former Peace Corps volunteer and public school teacher, I entered graduate school with the vague idea of writing a dissertation about education. Drug and alcohol instruction seemed like a good topic, because I knew-from my own experience-that it was mostly a failure. So I resolved to uncover the roots of this evil phenomenon, as historians are wont to do, and to explain How We Went So Very Wrong. Along the way, of course, I would also demonstrate How I Was So Very Right. Historians like to do that, too.
As I soon discovered, public school alcohol education was the brainchild of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. So I buried myself in WCTU journals and archives, exploring how these dedicated but misguided ladies (as I saw them) spread the good word about Demon Rum. Then, a few months into my research, I unearthed a letter from F. C. Atwell. Like me, Atwell was a career educator; even more, he was also a bitter critic of the WCTU."If my child had scarlet fever, it would be the height of folly for me to call in a physician and demand that he cure him by the use of cod liver oil," Atwell wrote, in an attack on"meddling" temperance women."Those who have studied neither pedagogy nor psychology should be content to leave the details and the method of achieving the desired result to those who have."
I squinted into the microfilm reader, struggling to decipher Atwell's unwieldy handwriting. More than that, though, I struggled against myself. Denouncing the WCTU put me in league with F. C. Atwell, who simply did not believe that laypeople-and, especially, laywomen-should have any say in public school curricula. And that was not a place where I wanted to be. So I rethought the entire project and-eventually-my entire philosophy, about education and everything else.
That was my first epiphany. I've experienced others, too, in every book that I've written. The epiphany comes on suddenly, shocking you out of your smug self-assuredness. It humbles you with its force and its logic. And, most of all, it makes you surprised. In my second book, about debates over history and religion in the school curriculum, I was surprised to find that most advocates for"prayer in the public schools" before the 1960s were liberal or even radical Christians, not conservative or fundamentalist ones. In my third book, I was surprised to find that the" cultural sensitivity" of overseas American missionaries and teachers-including, at one time, myself-masked a profoundly arrogant set of assumptions about culture itself. And I was surprised, throughout my career, at how many of my questions and answers concerned matters of faith and God. Like I said, I'm not a religious person. But I've come to understand the immense role of luck and grace in my own life, especially in the history that I write. And that might be my biggest epiphany of all.
By Jonathan Zimmerman
About Jonathan Zimmerman
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